How much do detectives need the dead? In the first Duino Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that “In the end, those who were carried off early no longer need us…But we, who do need such great mysteries, we for whom grief is so often the source of our spirit’s growth—: could we exist without them?” Rilke’s lines feel as right as they do surprising, because they identify the imaginative potential for the living of those who have died young. Because they symbolize the unrealized promise of a life well lived, the young dead fill a necessary role: The warning implied by their absence places a demand on the living to forge stronger identities.
HBO’s True Detective, written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary JojiFukunaga, is a crime drama that needs the dead very badly, and has made a feast out of them, along with a few other common ingredients: the gothic mystique of the rural south, two emotionally wounded detectives who have no idea how to be decent men and some butchered pieces of the philosophy of Nietzsche. When Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) stumble onto a murdered prostitute dressed up as a pagan goddess in a Louisiana cane field, the ensuing grief turns their young partnership into a friendship, and a single case into a 19-year-long chase for a serial killer who—of course—is twiddling his thumbs all along right beneath their noses. The machismo of their journey from end to end—which involves innumerable cigarettes, several affairs, gun fights, manly smack-talk and a sprinkling of angry anal sex with each other’s wives—has invited a backlash of feminist-tinged criticism after the drama’s initial surge of praise from critics.
But True Detective will survive the contention because for all its myopia, it compellingly explores the emotional territory shared between the murder and the detective without once confusing the two. For both, the dead are the great mystery, but it is only the detective for whom they can be the source of the spirit’s growth.
Most of the series is arranged in a double timeline: Marty and Rust, brought in separately to be interviewed by the Louisiana Police about the cane field murder case, narrate the drama in sequences which become voiceovers for lengthy flashbacks. In their mutual past, what at first appeared to be an isolated murder lead to a hunt for a cultic serial killer who could still be at large in the series’ present, entrenched in a system of local schools funded by a fundamentalist parachurch organization. Marty, who plays a down-to-earth father of two with a propensity for extramarital affairs, is a hypocrite: his characterization of his now ex-partner is full of pity for Rust’s lack of “family ties” which “give a man direction.” Rust, who forces his interviewers to buy him a six pack at the outset because on his off days he “starts drinking at noon,” is equally hypocritical: His own narration is smattered with nihilist jargon that, the audience always knows, conceals the deep hurt created by the accidental death of his daughter and unraveling of his marriage, which occur before the show begins.
The mystery of the girl’s death, which is lively and well-crafted, is shot through with the strong dialogue that results from this pairing of a rudderless everyman with a bored, isolated brainiac. Each partner has a clear vision of the other’s flaws, and isn’t afraid to lay them out, yet it is Rust’s uncanny knack for interpreting the murderer’s symbolism (antlers on girls, spiral tattoos, etc.) which draws the partners toward the mystery’s solution. Marty, of course, doubts Rust’s logic—that the somehow school-affiliated murderer is being concealed by the state government—at every step, and for good reason: It smacks of conspiracy-theory conjecture. And these misgivings frequently become charged with personal dislike, because though Marty and Rust make good partners, they uncannily mirror one another’s flaws:
Marty: “You know the real difference between you and me?”
Rust: “Yup: denial.”
Marty: “The difference is that I know the difference between an idea and a fact. You are incapable of admitting doubt. Now that sounds like denial to me.”
Rust: “I doubt that.”
This dialogue crackles because it bares the human needs that fuel each partner’s compensatory obsession with the murder. Rust, who views humanity as “sentient meat,” the product of an evolutionary accident that put consciousness into the “thresher” of fleshly existence, insists to Marty late in their partnership that “however illusory our identities are, we craft those identities by making value judgements. Everybody judges all the time. Now, you got a problem with that, you’re living wrong.” Marty responds to this with fantastic incomprehension (“What’s scented meat?”), but Rust’s philosophizing has put a finger on both their problems nonetheless. Slowly, each man begins to dedicate more and more of his personal resources to the case, and we get the sense that the inevitable collapse of their relationships is what they actually needed deep down; as if their own identities depended on giving the murdered girl a past, and that anything short of an air-tight solution to the case would result in personal dooms so terrible they might as well be paralleled by interpersonal ones.
These dilemmas have been criticized as meaningless because they are so gendered. As Sarah Kelly rightly put it in her review in Ex Terra, what is at stake in True Detective is how, in the 21st century, men can figure out how to be men. But Emily Nussbaum, writing for The New Yorker, insists that “while the male detectives of ‘True Detective’ are avenging women and children…every live woman they meet is paper-thin.” None of these women, she argues, has any interior life. Nussbaum suggests compellingly that we cannot expect a coherent answer to the question of male identities from a show that has no concept of female identities. Women are never singular in True Detective, only plural: a symbol, a totem, a commodity or a memory, a mystery or a desire.
Yet though this lack of depth is a real narrative failure for the show, it is precisely the same failure that, as it turns out, Marty and Rust must correct in order to discover themselves. Theirs is a story of escaping a gendered myopia, and it turns out that they must sacrifice all of their relationships, all other narratives in their lives, to rescue the narrative of the murdered girl. The show’s writers seem to have committed the same mistake, but the characters ultimately escape it. It is unfortunate that Nussbaum wrote her review before she got to see both Marty and Rust weeping at the finale, where they give up their macho myths of themselves in order to reconnect with the living world.
True Detective drew its audience in with the sensational and macabre. It will retain that audience with a refined plot, muscular dialogue and surprisingly refined moral sense. The success of recent HBO dramas has proven that shock factor can propel a narrative a good long way, but many of their claims to seriousness turn out to be based on the confusion of the brutal with the deep. When someone dies in Game of Thrones, they usually die terribly, but they rarely die significantly. But death is always significant in True Detective; in fact, its characters spend the length of the show trying to escape the demands of the dead so they can get back to the business of living. Their journey into the dark world of sexualized murder matters, not only because the art of it is well-rendered, but because it reminds us of the darkness in fetishes instead of fetishizing darkness.